Broadway Reviews

Red

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 1, 2010

Red The Donmar Warehouse production of a new play by John Logan. Directed by Michael Grandage. Set and costume design by Christopher Oram. Lighting design by Neil Austin. Composer and sound design by Adam Cork. Cast: Alfred Molina, Eddie Redmayne.
Theatre: Golden Theatre, 252 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Schedule: Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 3 pm.
Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 12 and under. (Some strong language.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Ticket prices: Orchestra, Mezzanine, and Rear Mezzanine (Rows A-F) $116.50, Rear Mezzanine (Rows G-H) $25.00
Premium Seat Price $201.50, Wednesday matinee $176.50, Friday & Saturday evenings $226.50.
Tickets: Telecharge

Red
Alfred Molina
Photo by Johan Persson.

The title of John Loganís new play at the Golden may be Red, but thatís far from the only color of importance within its texture. As on a painterís palette, hues of varying depth and intensity streak and blend until itís often difficult to discern where one ends and the next begins. But once theyíre all applied, what may have once been a discordant mess can in fact be an attractive work of art. H Loganís play may not be a life-changing landscape, but it is a largely piercing portrait of an artist and a man facing the defining moment of his existence.

This would be Mark Rothko, a Russian-born painter who became one of the most distinct proponents of abstract expressionism in the mid-20th century. He developed his unique style in response the work of many others, ranging from the paintings of Paul Klee and Georges Rouault to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, but found mainstream success by uncovering a link between his visions of sorrow and pain and rich, East Coast guilt. Though itís outwardly odd that heíd be asked to design the murals for the Four Seasons restaurant inside the Seagram building on Park Avenue, isnít there a delicious irony in his being engaged to - by intent or by accident - ruin the appetites of the multimillionaires who dine there?

Itís at this point, somewhere around 1958, that Loganís examination starts, with Rothko (Alfred Molina) nearing completion of the Four Seasons project just as his own star begins its slow implosion. Rothko, you see, is on the way out, and younger talents like Lichtenstein and Warhol are ascending to take his place. And Rothko is, perhaps unsurprisingly, not taking it well. Nor does he understand the connection made by his passionate but unpolished young assistant, Ken (Eddie Redmayne), that as Rothko once took joy in ďdestroyingĒ Picasso and his contemporaries, so too are the new crop doing the same to him.

Red
Eddie Redmayne
Photo by Johan Persson.

Rothkoís realizing this, and Kenís appropriation of the older manís drive and talent (if, at least in some ways, a repudiation of his ideas), represents the sum total of Redís ďplot.Ē Yet neither the play nor the production, which originated at Londonís Donmar Warehouse and which Michael Grandage has directed with a flurry of fiery strokes, ever feels repetitive, insubstantial, or (worst of all) boring. Logan works in the financial, political, and spiritual aspects of creation in ways that embrace, rather than ignore, the age-old conflicts of one generation pushing out another, so the evening always seems fresh and relevant even though Rothko and his popularity are both long gone.

The confrontations can be familial or fierce, the advice (regardless of the direction in which itís moving) loving or lacerating, the insights into art or existence more (and sometimes less) than you expect. But because their humanity and love (for something, if not necessarily for each other) are always on full view, which prevents Loganís writing from sounding like a scripted museum lecture. When the two are raging - as, on some level, they pretty much always are - it comes from the heart, not a history book, which makes this a fully drawn play and not a hastily sketched pamphlet.

This isnít to say that Logan doesnít sometimes go too far. Because so much is known about Rothkoís life, a flat-lining foil wouldnít allow a fair fight; so Logan has devised a lengthy, sad history for Ken that seems to exist for the purpose of promoting pain, not showing how the young man overcame it. Plus, because Ken functions as the megaphone in Rothkoís ear, Logan does tend to overemphasize his grander messages, rather than letting us discover every nuance of his arguments for ourselves.

The play could well be more effective still if, like Rothkoís paintings, it were more abstract and less literal. (Christopher Oramís set, looking like something of a high-ceiling studio on the border of Purgatory and the Upper East Side, is slightly more successful in that regard.) At least Grandage has decided on a singular fulcrum for presenting the work, building its energy on the agitation and anger that inspired Rothkoís works in the first place, and this consistency helps keep the play as a whole rich and satisfying even when a few elements fall just out of sync.

Molina is astonishingly committed, detailing every chiseled aspect of Rothkoís drive to fashion compelling ideas out of blank canvases and blank human beings. You can never observe even the tiniest crack in his steamroller faÁade; even when he breaks, as he does in slow motion for much of the last third of the play, the splitting steel reveals only sturdier (if smaller) stuff beneath. Wielding brushes and words alike as if they were weapons, Molina delivers one of the Broadway seasonís most corrosively commanding portrayals.

Redmayne, on the other hand, presents Ken as a model of malleability, a galaxy still in the process of forming. As Ken absorbs or rejects Rothkoís offerings, Redmayne slowly and deliberately transforms the boy from a wayward naÔf into an unassailable personality all his own. (That his characterís journey mirrors Rothkoís in reverse is a big part of the gambitís success.) Unfortunately, Redmayne is far less secure in his accent than Molina - Ken is supposed to be from the Midwest, but frequently sounds like heís much closer to the opposite shore of the Mid-Atlantic.

This isnít a huge problem, but it throws into some doubt Kenís anchoring authenticity, and establishing that is vital for the play. What Rothko struggles to understand is that the truths he paints arenít the only ones out there - sometimes other viewpoints and other voices can deepen, rather than diminish, the cultural conversation contemporary art exists to provoke. In other words, Rothkoís problem is that he sees the world too much in black and white. Logan and Grandage, however, did not, and thatís why Red is one of the seasonís most colorful successes.


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